Google Glass: there'll be tears before bedtime

Bettings on the first lawsuit?

Mmm, in two minds, or should that be having double vision over Google Glass.

Can’t be the only one still wary of people approaching one on Westminster Bridge waving their arms like an Italian chef and talking animatedly, seemingly to themselves. Are they hands-free on their phone talking to a chum in Kilmarnock, or a recent escapee from a facility who might toss one summarily over the parapet merely for looking at them awry? And now people will be issuing instructions to their glasses, or rather the embedded computer screen in their specs’ interactive Google Glass, something recent facility escapees likely do anyway, possibly imagining they already have a computer screen there. How much more wary will that make you feel as you’re crossing a bridge alone at dusk, or standing too close to the crowded Underground platform edge?

At the same time, trying to navigate the side streets with the map app on the phone, or sat nav, can be a literal pain in the neck. So I can see the advantages and convenience of being able to see your directions on your specs.

I’m also of the generation where wearing glasses as a kid, especially if pink plastic NHS-issue with the obligatory sticking plaster holding together the broken bridge, labelled you four eyes, specstic, Joe 90, Piggy (see Lord of the Flies) or, for some reason the one I found least offensive, Milky Bar Kid.  But now the bespectacled boot will be on the other foot and the Google Glass generation presumably won’t be seen dead without their intelligent face furniture. And, as they’re already used to donning specs, not to mention finding them first thing in the morning crushed under the pillow or suspended from the toothbrush stand, existing glasses wearers will also be the most successful early adopters of the new technology. Finally, we’ll be ahead of the pack and be able to look down our noses through our Google Glass at the uninitiated as their heads swim trying to focus going down the stairs.

So far, according to Google’s YouTube vid, besides using them as a heads up walking or driving sat nav, you’ll be able to  take pictures  or video with your Google Glass glasses – generally, it seems according to the film, while , stunt flying, skiing or roller coastering – or you can browse the web or skype.  All you have to do is say “OK glass, take a picture” etc.  You can see how that is going to make you appear one anchovy short of a pizza.

And you’ll probably be able to do more besides following Google Glass glasses experiments with real users – as opposed to Google people, including Sergey Brin himself, who was recently spotted putting a pair through their navigation technology paces on the New York subway. Had he even thought of consulting the map?

The company is currently looking for 8000 “bold, creative individuals” in the US to field-test them (for which privilege they will have to pay $1500 to buy their own). As part of the deal they have to say how they’d use them in their 50-word application for the trial and are being invited to come back later with other ideas and “be part of shaping the future of Glass” – there’s an ambition.

Google Glasses guinea pigs have to be 18,  pick up their specs in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco and get their applications in by 02.59 am US Eastern Time (for some reason) on February 28.

As well as talking to your Google Glasses, it seems, you will be able to listen to them through your skull. A patent filing to the Federal Communications Commission included a system for playing sound via a “bone-conduction” device rather than earphones or plugs (buds to our US readers).

So when will Google Glasses be on general release and all of us trying to look at at least two things at once?  There seems to be no definite date yet, but it will likely be sooner rather than later given that others are snapping at Google’s smart specs heels. Motorola is on the case with a more technical “headset computer system” for professional users like engineers and emergency services, while Oakley has Airwave ski goggles with a heads up display giving the wearer’s speed and telling them what music they’re listening too in cases where they’ve taken a tumble, bumped their heads and forgotten. 

Other companies offered up prototypes of similar devices at the last Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in LA.  Among them were Vuzix, with its Android-driven M100 smartphone specs including computer screen and video.

Also driving the market are forecasts that annual international  “wearable mobile” sales could be worth over $1.5 bn as soon as 2014.

However, you do also wonder how soon after these things become de rigeur for the wired that the first lawsuit will be lodged against Google and/or Apple by someone who walks under the bus or taxi they neither saw nor heard due to videoing and following directions on their glasses, while listening to AC/DC or talking to someone on their iPhone.

As a further caution before the big launch, Google could also do worse than watch that Steve Martin comedy film classic The Jerk.  Here the humble gas pump attendant Navin R Johnson (Martin) helps out a customer with loose specs by welding a small wire prop-cum-handle to the bridge. This becomes the patented Optigrab and makes Johnson a fortune, but then ruins him when it renders wearers cross-eyed and they launch a class action. He’s left with just a remote control, a thermos and a paddleball. Even his dog Shithead deserts him.

Mr Brin, you have been warned. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Jeffree edits the Timber Trades Journal.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.